British Columbia·Analysis

Transit referendum: It could be about something much bigger than a tax increase

Transit advocate fears Canadian Taxpayers' Federation is on the verge of convincing green-loving, transit-riding Vancouverites to vote against their best interests.

The yes side knows it's up against something loud and focused that has struck a nerve

The transit plebiscite could be about much more than a tax increase, or better bus service. (CBC)

How could they lose? 

Start with a formidable team made up of business, labour, students, developers, environmentalists — even medical health officers — all united behind a plan for better transit in Metro Vancouver.

Their sales pitch? More buses, trains, another Seabus and with all those people using transit, even drivers would benefit from less congested roads. All it would take is a 0.5% increase in the local sales tax to cover the $7.5-billion bill.

And then the wheels fell off the bus. 

TransLink the target

The Canadian Taxpayers' Federation came along and with their push behind the 'No' campaign turned a plebiscite on transit into a vote on taxes and alleged waste in the high offices of TransLink and beyond.

"The vilification of government is very popular and TransLink makes a particularly sweet target," concedes Gordon Price, Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University and a 'Yes' proponent.

He fears the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation is on the verge of doing something truly remarkable: convincing green-loving, transit-riding Vancouverites to vote against their best interests.

"Even people who are going to vote 'no' say they are not against more transit. That's what they will be voting for, less transit," Price says.

Is it really about the 'Elites'?

The CTF certainly portrays itself as the Biblical David to the 'Yes' campaign's Goliath.

"It's very much a list of the elites in our region. It's very much big government, big union, big environmental groups, big business all on one side and what we are seeing is the people, expressed by the polls, are very much on the other side," says Hamish Marshall, campaign manager for No TransLink Tax. 

Critics don't buy it.

"The 'No' side is the Taxpayers Federation. Period," says Donald Gutstein, author of "Harperism", which documents Canada's shift to the political right.

The CTF website indicates it has a pretty healthy share of 'elites' itself. Its board members have ties to the energy industry, the legal profession and conservative organizations such as the Canadian Constitution Foundation (court challenges aimed at "reducing state power") and the Canadian LabourWatch Association ("dedicated to helping employees make informed choices about unionization").

Promise of transparency

Since the CTF does not have charitable status, it does not have to disclose where it gets its money from, although its website claims 98.6% of its donations are less than $1000.

Gutstein says the 'no' side, which says it's spending $40,000, should come clean about the role of the CTF in the campaign.

"Who is funding this campaign? And document it. Don't just tell me it's $40,000. Show me the money trail," he says.

'No' campaign manager Marshall says he will do just that later this week, even though there are no disclosure rules or spending limits in this plebiscite.

"Our goal really is to show we have nothing to hide. We'll show you who our donors are and we challenge [the 'yes' campaign] to do the same," says Marshall. 

He says the 'yes' side is spending millions in transit riders and taxpayers' money. In fact a grand total from the myriad of private and public groups in the campaign has also been difficult to obtain.

Expensive campaign

The Mayors' Council alone has "authorization to spend up to $6 million on the Education Campaign," says Greg Moore, Mayor of Port Coquitlam in an email to the CBC.

Some on the 'Yes' side are concerned the outcome of the plebiscite will have an impact on much more than just the future of transit in Metro Vancouver.

Gordon Price is worried about the future of any large publicly-funded program designed for the public good. If the CTF is able to convince Vancouver--including existing transit users--that politicians and institutions can't be trusted, then it paves the way for more private sector involvement in other areas such as health care and the economy as a whole.

"Certainly the Canadian Taxpayers Federation isn't stopping with this", Price says. "You may think it's about making transit more efficient, making TransLink more accountable. No. It's about diminishing (government's) role in the economy and as a factor in your life."

About the Author

Kirk Williams


Kirk Williams is a Vancouver-based reporter for CBC News and has covered a variety of topics from real estate, to politics, and breaking news.


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